A working class hero is something to be

Growing up on a council estate doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else, but apparently it means you’re at a huge disadvantage in terms of education.

BBC News (2007) reported that more than half of the British population describe themselves as ‘working class’ – and yet the definition that the media usually uses to describe “working class” pupils, due to statistics using this figure being much more easily obtainable and allowing journalists to avoid the decision of how to define “working class” (e.g. NRS?), is the extremely short-sighted and unrepresentative number of pupils receiving free school meals (FSM), which is closer to 13% of the population. Headlines such as the following dominate education stories in tabloids and broadsheets alike:


Johnson, Brett & Deary (2009) argue that the relationship between class and attainment is largely cyclical, with education being the key to social mobility: “Parental social class contributed to educational attainment, which in turn contributed to participant social class attainment, suggesting that educational attainment contributed to social class stability…Education was important to social mobility and, where measured, mental ability contributed to educational attainment. Education thus appeared to play a pivotal role in the association between ability and social class attainment.

Educational inequalities associated with social class do not appear to be equally important for all students regardless of ethnic background (Gillborn, 2008, 53), so it makes sense to consider the effects of both and their interaction. Gillborn, Rollock, Vincent and Bell (2012) carried out the “biggest qualitative study of education and the Black middle class yet conducted in the UK”. They found that white students are actually the least likely to receive FSM, but the achievement of those that do is lowest. In other words, there is a large FSM gap for white students (32.5%) because of the combination of high non-FSM attainment and low FSM attainment. Gillborn et al. also argue that “a focus on White FSM students has the effect of removing wider race inequalities from view…Race and class dis/advantages are reported in the media [in a way that] serves to advance White interests…Deep and persistent patterns of overall race inequality have been erased from the policy agenda; the fact that most minoritised groups are out-performed by their White peers is entirely absent from debate.”

Sveinsson (2009, 5) appears to agree with the conclusions of Gillborn et al.: “The interests of the white working class are habitually pitched against those of minority ethnic groups and immigrants…there is a fairly consistent message that the white working class are the losers in the struggle for scarce resources, while minority ethnic groups are the winners – at the direct expense of the whiteworking class.” Sounds familiar…

Shepherd (2010): “One of the reasons why class determines how white pupils perform at school is that white workingclass parents may have lower expectations of their children than workingclass parents from other ethnic groups.”

I’ve already talked about the effect of teacher/parents expectations on student performance (Week 1) – clearly it’s an important factor. Siraj-Blatchford (2010)found that disadvantaged families often have high expectations for their children and provide a lot of educational support through ‘concerted cultivation’. (Concerted cultivation, n. The premise that children’s talents and skills will be fully realised if they are actively fostered by parents.)

Lareau (2003) found that lower socio-economic status (SES) correlates with fewer after-school activities per week. Similarly, Lareau & Weininger (2007)found that 93% of children with mothers who have a degree, took part in an out-of-school-hours learning activity, compared with 54% if the mother has no qualifications. There’s all sorts of reasons why this might be the case, the most obvious being availability and financial reasons – but there’s evidence such as the KIPP programme I talked about in Week 1 (and mentioned earlier), which replicates these kinds of behaviours regardless of SES or parents’ academic background (and regards such practices as key to their schools’ success), which would suggest that this and other similar efforts make a huge difference to children’s academic achievement.

The esteemed Prof. Steve Strand (Professor of Education among other things,University of Warwick) contends that the effects of poverty are “much less pronounced for most minority ethnic groups…Those from low socio-economic backgrounds seem to be much more resilient to the impact of disadvantage than their white British peers.”

For all their bleating about their efforts to admit more workingclass and ethnic minority students, the statistics show quite conclusively that they must try harder. This brilliant but poorly-designed visualisation (and this alternative visualisation – same data, but poorly-designed in a different way) illustrates the vast differences in workingclass student intake, by comparing statistics on numbers/percentages of workingclass first-degree entrants, as well as overall numbers, for every university (so far as I can be bothered to tell) in the UK. Take, for instance, Bangor University: 2,355 full-time first degree entrants at the time (2011), 33% of which are from “manual occupation backgrounds” (admittedly a narrow definition). A respectable score. Oxford and Cambridge: 2,875 and 2,930 respectively; 11.5% and 12.6% of which are from said background. The two lowest-scoring on the graph.

We all know that A-levels aren’t the most efficient way of discerning students’ ability – if AAB candidates are rejected as not displaying evidence of ability to learn, clearly the candidate isn’t to blame. Other forms of assessment such asPISA (p. 119) or even IB might be more appropriate, but ultimately other factors such as SES/social class and race are going to disadvantage some students from the very beginning. All the ‘affirmative action’ in the world will do no good unless we stop being so hyper-aware of social class and race, as well as eliminating institutional prejudice. Maybe realising that being a poor black kid isnot the same as being a middle-aged white guy, just with smaller and crappier stuff (#3). Why is this even an issue…? Discuss.


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